"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "
-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"
I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to. I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties. To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:
There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:
And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:
If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?
In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education. In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.
A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching? It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game. These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented. In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education. Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?
Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism). There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers? It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.
The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible. For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive. The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content. Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.
The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism. Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process. Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action. The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground. And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.
Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment. But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?
Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect. On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist. And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse? In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'" Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:
Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)
It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment. Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture. For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance. For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:
An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty. Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.
Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative. The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment. We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds. She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts. Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?
This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.
Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.
In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.
Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.
At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?
Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.
I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.
Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.